Sandy Speakman, general counsel for the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs; Erica Borggren, director, Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs; Alfie Alvarado-Ramos, director, Washington Department of Veterans Affairs; retired Adm. Clyde Marsh, commissioner of Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs and president of NASDVA; Tom Palladino, executive director, texas Veterans Commission; Mary Forbes, assistant director, Washington Department of Veterans Affairs; and VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki pose for a group photo after the Pillars of Excellence Awards were presented Feb. 11.

On Feb. 11, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki and I announced the first recipients of the newly-established Abraham Lincoln Pillars of Excellence Awards. This new Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) award recognizes our state partners for outstanding programs that support Veterans in their states. The awards were presented at a White House ceremony, held in conjunction with the National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs (NASDVA) winter conference. VA’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and NASDVA worked together to establish this award to recognize the states’ dedication and the excellence among programs established and operated by our state partners.

Every U.S. state, district, commonwealth and territory has a sister agency to VA, and their governors are equally dedicated to supporting and assisting Veterans. These agencies, while independent from VA, are key partners in our mission to fulfill the promise of Abraham Lincoln: “to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.”

The state agencies have a primary mission of assisting Veterans in their state with accessing and applying for federal VA care and benefits. More importantly, each state government has made additional commitments to their Veterans. From reduced or exempted state taxes, to education benefits and direct bonuses for war time Veterans, these programs represent significant investments and expenditures on behalf of state governments. I have the distinct honor of working closely with the leadership in each of these agencies to ensure VA and our state partners are in synch when it comes to supporting our Veterans.

“These outstanding programs are successful, proven initiatives being funded and run by our state partners,” said Stephanie Birdwell, acting director, VA Office of Intergovernmental Affairs “The Abraham Lincoln Pillars of Excellence Award not only  recognizes and highlights the most effective and efficient state programs, it also encourages other states to look to these best practices as models for delivering care and benefits to their Veterans.”

Awards were presented for programs in the following categories: Elimination of Veterans Homelessness, Elimination of the Disability Claims Backlog, Improving Access to Benefits and Services and Outstanding State Programs. We presented five awards in the four categories for achievements in 2013. Three of the established categories align with the agency priority goals outlined in VA’s strategic plan, with a fourth reserved for outstanding state programs that address other state and VA priorities

The award for programs aimed at eliminating Veterans homelessness went to the Washington Department of Veterans Affairs for its plan to eliminate Veterans homelessness. The program uses statewide Veterans housing summits to bring together various state and federal stakeholders  to increase resource awareness and collaboration in the effort to eliminate homelessness among Washington Veterans.

The Texas Veterans Commission for the establishment of Strike Force and fully developed claims teams received the award for programs aimed at eliminating the disability claims backlog. In 2012 the Texas Veterans Commission requested and received an initial appropriation of $1.5 million to assist the federal VA in reducing the claims backlog in Texas. The state formed two eight-member Strike Force teams and five-member fully developed claims teams that operate out of the Houston and Waco regional offices. Additional staff was deployed to various underserved areas and to hold a series of “Beat the Backlog” events throughout the state. Texas was the first state to commit significant state resources to augment VA staff in order to expedite the reduction of the disability claims backlog.

With a second award for the Washington Department of Veteran Affairs, the state was honored  for its Veterans benefits enhancement program, which pairs the state Veterans Affairs department with the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. Together, the partnership identifies and facilitates Veterans and their dependents, who are receiving state social and health services, to access the maximum federal benefits for which they are eligible. The goal of the program is to transition Veterans currently receiving Medicaid and other state benefits to VA’s health care system and other federally funded benefits and health care services.

Two awards were presented in the category of Outstanding State Programs. The Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs was recognized for the Alabama Veterans Treatment Court Task Force. Alabama established the first state-level task force to develop a statewide Veterans Treatment Court (VTC) program. The VTC Task Force advocates for the coordinated planning, growth and expansion of the VTC programs in municipal, district, and circuit court systems throughout the state.

Finally, the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs was awarded with the Abraham Lincoln Pillars of Excellence Award for creating the Illinois Joining Forces. Illinois Joining Forces is a statewide, public-private network of more than 150 organizations working together to improve services to Illinois’ military and veteran communities.

It was a pleasure and an honor to be involved with the creation and presentation of these awards. It is important for VA to recognize the incredible work being done at the state level. We all have the same goal of ensuring all Veterans receive the care and benefits they have earned through honorable service.


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Published on Feb. 21, 2014

Estimated reading time is 4.5 min.

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  1. Just saying February 24, 2014 at 5:26 pm

    The state I live in Missouri is terrible about giving tax breaks to disabled veterans. We get no property tax breaks either. We get free fishing and hunting license here which does me no good since I am 100% disabled so I can’t fish or hunt anymore. Missouri needs to start helping dis. Veterans more besides license plates. All states should be equal in helping veterans.

    • sphynx36 February 24, 2014 at 10:46 pm

      No need ot blame the VA for your state’s apparent lack of benefits.
      The U.S. sets it so that each state can make its own rules. Go after your state

  2. JPHawke February 22, 2014 at 11:29 am

    I wonder why my State, Nevada, is not listed?

    • Shawn February 24, 2014 at 1:50 pm

      Nevada has a dept of Veterans Affairs, but just did not get an award.

      • caleb harris February 25, 2014 at 6:37 pm

        Did any one submit a nomination for Nevada? Does anyone know the nomination process? Id say Nevada is deserving.

  3. Anthony J. DeCarlo February 21, 2014 at 7:05 pm

    Stop all this awards non-sense for outstanding performance until all the VA problems are solved!!! How can there be outstanding performers while The VA is in such a mess?

    • Shawn February 24, 2014 at 10:27 am

      Anthony, the awards are for State Dept of Veterans Affairs, not US Dept of Veterans affairs. Each state has their own dept which helps Veterans apply for federal and state benefits. The state benefits can include things like breaks on property taxes, burial assistance, hunting license breaks, etc. There is nothing in this article about performance of the US Dept of Veterans Affairs. The VA is just giving the states an award for performance. The article is not about the VA Medical Centers or Veterans Benefit Administration. I just wanted to clarify that for you. No doubt the VA (federal) has lots of room for improvement, but that is a separate issue. I am a veteran who gets care at a VA hospital and have had great service from my state’s Dept of Veterans Affairs, so the above comment is based upon my experience and nothing else. Regarding the issues you are having with the VA (federal), please make sure to ask for Service Recovery Coordinator that is in whatever clinic you go to. That person or the Patient Advocate should help figure out how the issue can be fixed. Also consider contacting the VA medical center director’s office. If no appropriate response is made, contact your local congressman or senator.

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